Deadly water conflict a warning for the world

OPINION: For thousands of years, Iran, which lies in a semi-arid part of the world, had remarkable success in sustainable water management. Ancient Iranians devised innovative methods of regulating, transferring, redirecting and redistributing water, centuries before the Romans built their aqueducts.

In modern times, however, Iran has failed to devise a suitable governance structure around water management which prioritises long-term preservation over short-term economic gains. That is according to Kaveh Madani, a scientist in water and climate at Yale University and the former deputy head of Iran’s environment agency.

Iran’s thirst for economic benefit is closely tied to political expediency. Politicians are happy to pressure water authorities to finance specific projects, such as dam building, to gain popularity with farmers in their regions, without considering the projects’ long-term environmental impact on human and natural resources.

Four decades of international economic sanctions (in particular, “maximum-pressure” sanctions introduced under Donald Trump) have added to Iran’s environmental woes. In an extensive research paper, Madani states that sanctions have forced Iran to adopt a range of “survivalist policies” which have made “economic production much costlier to the environment”.

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Other factors are to blame too. In addition to climate change (floods, droughts and heatwaves), Iran has experienced considerable population growth. But the main factor leading to the current water crisis, as Madani says, is lack of investment in a resilient, integrated water management system.

The current water scarcity in Iran is fuelling violence and serious conflict in the Khuzestan region in the southwest. Khuzestan has literally dried up, sparking ongoing protests which, so far, have led to the death of three young men and a police officer, though the actual number might be higher.

Iran is known for its brutal suppression of protesters. In November 2019, the security forces killed hundreds of protesters opposing the surprise price increase in gasoline and the regime’s tyrannical rule.

Khuzestan is an oil-rich province on the border with Iraq. Its large Arab Sunni population have always felt marginalised and discriminated against, a feeling shared by many from non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran (Kurds, Balochis, Turks, etc) which, together, make up 40 to 50 per cent of its population.

One of Khuzestan’s most critical water sources is the River Karun, the longest and largest river (by discharge) in Iran, and the lifeline of the local people. It is hard to believe that parts of this navigable river have almost dried up this year.

Growing up in Iran, I used to love listening and dancing to a song about the Karun. Its lyrics speak to the loveliness of the river, the joy of seeing lovers, at dusk, coming out to sit on its banks, under the palm trees, forgetting their sorrows and rejoicing in the beauty of the river.

How sad to hear that parts of the river have no water now, and the beautiful palm trees have lost their glorious crowns because the falling water level has added to salinity of the soil, killing the palms.

No wonder people are angry. Water is their livelihood, Karun is their joy, and they are asking themselves how they can be so poor when they live on a sea of oil.

Numerous villages in the country have severe or serious water shortages and rely on tanker deliveries. Iranian officials can hardly feign surprise. The energy minister warned in May that the country was facing the driest summer in 50 years and that scorching temperatures (50 degrees Celsius) would lead to water shortages and electricity cuts.

Donna Miles: “A civil war in Iran would add yet another environmental and human disaster to the already war-torn Middle East.”


Donna Miles: “A civil war in Iran would add yet another environmental and human disaster to the already war-torn Middle East.”

Water scarcity is a serious problem that can destabilise entire countries. The clearest example of this is Syria. Starting in 2006, the country suffered five years of severe drought while its main river, the Euphrates, remained heavily drawn down by Turkey and Iraq. Severe dust storms resulted in loss of agricultural land, causing mass migration of farming families to urban centres, where poverty and unemployment erupted into widespread protests that culminated, with the help of foreign agitators, in civil war in 2011.

Iran could face a similar fate as inter-ethnic and regional tensions are already high and many historical and current grievances remain unresolved. People in Khuzestan are already angry that their water is being redirected – stolen, they say – to more politically powerful Isfahan in central Iran. They resent being marginalised, forced to disperse, and migrate from their own lands.

People receiving the new migrants also resent the pressure on their limited resources. What is going to happen to all this anger? A civil war in Iran would add yet another environmental and human disaster to the already war-torn Middle East.

So what are the main lessons for the world? Safeguard your environment, remove entrenched discrimination and address ethnic tensions – because short-term economic thinking and social injustice are recipes for violence and ongoing conflict.

CORRECTION: This column has been amended to replace the ethnic description Azeris with Turks in the eighth paragraph. (Amended, July 26, 9.32am)

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